Class of 2013
1 Jarvis Jones. Jones' first two seasons were crippled by some fairly serious injuries, but when healthy he’s shown real flashes. Coach Porter, who's nothing if not blunt, has gone out on a limb to support him. So far in camp JJ’s competed on more-or-less even footing with Kelvin Beachum, which speaks well for him. Beachum s a very solid Tackle and their matchup was described as a "monumental battle" by Tunch & Wolf. I've also heard them praise Jones' play in run support. So we can expect a fair amount if he stays healthy in 2015. But I'm actually looking for a more subtle metric - how many double-teams does he demand on passing downs? At this point we can't expect JJ to beat many double teams, but if he requires them it will be a huge benefit for the rest of the team. So... call the year a success if Jones gets 6 sacks while becoming the guy that other teams always account, and 10+ sacks if it's Arthur Moats who's earning the double teams.
2. Le'Veon Bell. We expect one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL. We hope for THE best offensive weapon in the NFL. No pressure.
3. Markus Wheaton. We expect an exceptional #3 receiver who also handles the kick/punt return duties. We hope that he'll earn to block and/or follow far enough in Antonio Brown's footsteps to hold off Martavis Bryant and reclaim the #2 slot.
4. Shamarko Thomas. He’s not going to be Troy. And he’s almost sure to have some rough games in the first half of the season. But going into his third year we nevertheless have a right to expect a solid, starting Strong Safety. The biggest issue is the same as the one for Jarvis Jones – can he stay healthy?
5. Landry Jones. Make or break, young man. If you can’t seize the #3 position, expect it to go to one of the Slash types who offer more upside – Tajh Boyd, or even one of the rookies WR’s who played QB in college, Devin Gardner or Tyler Murphy.
6 Vince Williams. He might just be the best backup Buck in the NFL. Some smart team in need of a thumper really ought to get off the pot and trade a 2nd-round pick for this kid.
7. Chris Hubbard. The backup inside man on the offensive line.
VERDICT: A final verdict will depend on whether Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas can stay healthy, but right now it’s looking like a great class.
Class of 2014
1. Ryan Shazier. Last year he looked like an all-world football hero until the injuries piled up. More subtly, we also saw a few top-notch outside-zone running teams take advantage of his rookie-level problems with gap discipline, and some good guards prove that he had to add more weight and polish his technique for getting off blocks. Coming into camp, we see that he’s added the muscle mass. A typical second-year leap should fix the gap-discipline and technique issues to. So that leads to some pretty darned high expectations. Let's call it "pro bowl buzz, but probably not an actual selection." He can outplay expectations by earning the pro-bowl birth, revealing a special ability to use that extraordinary speed in coverage, and/or turning into a "Mr. Reliable" who makes plays all over the field. Note that Shazier (like all Mack LB's) will be very hard to judge him on any standard metric.
2. Stephon Tuitt. Cam Heyward was basically invisible in his rookie year and started to become a star by the end of Year 3. The end of Stephon Tuitt’s rookie year looked an awful lot like major portions of Cam’s Year 2. So for Tuitt, we expect his second-year run to be a solid, fully professional performance with ever-increasing flashes of stardom. That would put him a full year ahead of Wreck-It, and even hoping for more than that would be greedy. [Excuse me for a moment - the thought of two Cam Heywards on the D-line, with McLendon and McCullers in between, has made me giddy....]
3. Dri Archer. Last year he looked like the classic, rookie deer-in-the-headlights who couldn’t do anything right. We have the right to expect him to get over that. Archer's Year 2 will be a success if he becomes the top-15 return man we were promised, and actually becomes useful for the occasional gadget play. He'll exceed expectations if he becomes a weapon on punts & kickoffs that other teams have to seriously fear.
4. Martavis Bryant. We expect a solid #2 or #3 receiver who regularly takes the top off opposing defenses, gets a load of red-zone touchdowns, and displays ever-increasing mastery of the route tree. We hope for a great #2 receiver who turns this unit into the best collection of WR’s in the NFL.
5. Jordan Zumwalt. The numbers are against him. His season will be a failure if he can’t earn a spot on the practice squad. If everything works out perfectly, he’ll replace Terence Garvin as the Special Teams ace.
6. Daniel McCullers. One of the great success stories, McCullers completely redistributed his body mass over the offseason and now looks like an enormous professional athlete instead of an enormous Sasquatch. By all accounts he’s also playing with a much lower hip level and showing flashes of dominance as an interior lineman. We expect him to be a solid #2 Nose Tackle who continually pushes for extra snaps, and provides the team with a special edge in goal-line situations. We hope that he’ll be able to learn the 5-technique too, and becomes one of the best swing-man defensive linemen that Pittsburgh’s ever had. Look for blocked kicks and batted passes as a special bonus.
7. Rob Blanchflower. His health has betrayed him to the point that he faces a serious uphill battle. He’ll be lucky to make the practice squad.
8. C.J. Goodwin, UDFA. The buzz says he is one of the finest athletes on the field, even in this crowd. And he’s much more polished – but still not up to fully professional standards. There seems to be no doubt this kid has what it takes to be an NFL player for many years to come. But as a WR for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the current amount of depth? He’s competing with Darrius Heyward-Bey, a veteran whose shown great attitude and good special teams talent.
9. Howard Jones, UDFA. As a rookie he flashed great athleticism but was simply too small and too raw. The buzz says he added the missing weight without losing any speed. He’s also made a 2nd-year leap. The question is, was it a big enough leap to make the roster? HoJo is locked into serious combat for the spot as OLB #5 or #6. With Shawn Lemon gone the other leading contestants are rookie Anthony Chickillo (who may be playing himself off the practice squad and onto the roster) and Terence Garvin (an established special teams ace who may never be more than that).
10. CB Kevin Fogg. A 5-10 second-year player from Liberty who’s coming off a redshirt rookie year. According to the buzz he just keeps making plays in the same way that Antwon Blake did last year. At this point the CB depth chart looks like Allen & Gay on top, then Blake as the #3 and B.W. Webb as the #4. Fogg has forced his way into a three-way tie with the two rookies (Golson and Grant) for two available spots. Whoever misses out will drop to the practice squad and be in serious danger of getting poached.
11. Allejandro Villanueva. By all accounts he’s finished getting his body into the shape of an NFL tackle but he’s only just begun to learn how to play the position. Throw cold water on the idea that he’ll supplant Mike Adams as Tackle #3. The word from camp is that he’s still so raw that such a move would be little short of insanity. Villanueava’s year will be a success if he makes the practice squad again and allows the team enough flexibility to let go of Adams when his rookie contract expires in 2016. He might get called up and even see a few snaps if the injury bug bites, but it would be better for everybody if he’s left alone to learn his craft behind the scenes.
12. Ethan Hemer. Competing with veteran Clifton Geathers to unseat Cam Thomas. Right now he’s there at #3. Joe Kruger (a 3rd-year player) is probably #4, with the rookie LT Walton at #5.
VERDICT: Ask for a verdict next year. At this point the only thing we can say is that the top of the class looks promising and having a dozen 2nd-year bodies still in camp is pretty impressive.
Class of 2015
1. Bud Dupree. Our scouting report went something like this: "He’ll be invisible in Year 1, a disappointment in Year 2, but could make all the boo birds eat their words once Year 3 arrives." The buzz from camp is that his football IQ is better than expected, but otherwise it looks like he’s right on course. The big issue seems to be a lack of both depth and polish in his pass-rush moves. But the athleticism is real. For this year we can expect nothing but learning curve and special teams contributions. If he can earn a few snaps by the end of the year (injuries aside) it will be gravy.
2. Senquez Golson. Who knows? He’s been injured. Grrrrrr. Golson was fairly polished in college, so we had been expecting an ever-increasing number of snaps as the year went on, hopefully ending with him pushing for the #3 Corner spot. That’s still the hope but we haven’t seen anything yet to support it.
3. Sammie Coates. Let’s be clear about this: Sammie Coates is not the same body type as Martavis Bryant, any more than Terell Owens was a clone for Randy Moss. The only thing they have in common is being utterly raw from the technique point of view, and having HOF potential if everything happens to go right. On most teams Coates could hope to earn some snaps in the second half of the season by mastering a small segment of the route tree. That’s what Bryant did last year. But it will be very hard to accomplish that on the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers because there’s so much depth at the Wide Receiver position. Barring injuries, we have to expect that Coates will have a redshirt year.
4. Doran Grant. Has looked pretty good in camp so far, earning the pursed-lips-and-slow-nod-of-approval reaction from many pundits. Expect him to contribute on special teams while learning his craft. Actual snaps as a #4 Corner should be considered a win.
5. Jesse James. With Blanchflower hurt JJ has a clear path to the #3 tight end position. It’s his to lose. There’s been no real buzz yet to suggest that he either will or won’t.
6. L.T. Walton. Facing a tough, uphill battle. Geathers, Hemer, and Kruger have all been getting more buzz, and Cam Thomas is holding the position he wants. Walton’s year will be a success if he manages to push his way onto the practice squad.
7. Anthony Chickillo. After the draft he had a designated spot on the practice squad roster. But then he dropped 30 pounds from his college playing weight, developed some serious agility we hadn’t seen on the tape, and flashed enough variety in his pass rush to leap ahead to an early lead in the race for camp phenom. And there’s actually a slot that he could earn. Bud Dupree is the #1 pick and will definitely make the roster, but he’s raw enough that a guy like Chickillo could jump in front of him for playing time in the first few years. The question is, can he beat out second-year player Howard Jones for that honor? If Chickillo keeps playing the way he has been, the team won’t dare to stash him on the practice squad for fear that he’ll get poached. Expectations: practice squad, unless he can continue to improve as camp moves forward. Hopes: he will continue to improve and will then make the 53 as a special teams contributor who also contributes on sub-packages (and thereby helps to bring the wrath of Steeler Nation down on the head of a redshirted Bud Dupree).
8. Gerod Holliman. It all depends on whether he can learn to be a physical tackler. There’s a small chance that will come naturally, in which case he could be this year’s late-round phenom. More likely, he’ll end up on the practice squad. If it’s a question of "want to" rather than "can," expect him to be an early cut.
9. Eli Rogers, UDFA. A quicker-than-fast WR who got a lot of buzz as an uncatchable force during the football-in-shorts. If he keeps it up he could theoretically push Dri Archer and Markus Wheaton for kick return duties.
The other hot "young" name
1. Clifton Geathers. He of the attitude and the 50 pounds eliminated over the offseason. The odds-on favorite to supplant Cam Thomas as a swing lineman. Note that he’s actually a 6-year veteran who flashed great numbers at the Combine but never matured. This is his last good chance to make it.